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So Where Is the Maximum Son? : South Korea worries as succession process up north clouds over

The recent commentary by Radio Pyongyang was cryptic and intriguing:

“Historical experience shows that unless the problem of a successor of a revolutionary leader is solved correctly, ambitious persons and conspirators may . . . play with the party and its revolution. Therefore the correct solution of the successor’s problem has been brought up as a serious issue for the future of the revolution.”

Meaning? Well, just possibly, that six weeks after the death of Kim Il Sung a potentially destabilizing challenge to the power of the dead dictator’s son and designated successor is under way. South Korea’s President Kim Young Sam is concerned enough to warn his people to be ready for “any contingency.”

Kim Jong Il hasn’t been seen in public since Kim Il Sung was buried on July 20. His absence from last week’s important Liberation Day parade was particularly notable. The government-run press continues to assure everyone that Kim is in charge. But he has yet to assume the titles of president and head of the Korean Workers’ (Communist) Party, which his father held.

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Diplomats in Pyongyang confirm that anti-Kim leaflets appeared this week in Pyongyang’s diplomatic quarter. A Foreign Ministry official in Moscow says Russians in Pyongyang believe a power struggle is in progress. North Korea is the world’s most secretive state, and trying to interpret what goes on there is like trying to make sense of shadows dancing on the wall. But North Korea’s evident deep economic crisis does suggests the possibility of widespread opposition.

It’s possible that official talk of ambitious persons and conspirators aims only at setting the stage for a sweeping purge by Kim of all those he sees as enemies. It’s also possible, and plausible, that the opposition is strong enough to threaten Kim’s control.

Internal uncertainty about where North Korea may be headed could be the reason for Pyongyang’s renewed hard line on inspection of its nuclear facilities. Two weeks ago U.S. and North Korean negotiators agreed on a series of steps to defuse the nuclear crisis, a major one being that North Korea would abide by terms of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. But last week’s statement from Pyongyang that it would never permit inspection of two key nuclear sites appeared to nullify much of what was accomplished. The Clinton Administration was careful after the Aug. 13 agreement not to proclaim that the confrontation was ended. The unsettled situation in Pyongyang seems to support the wisdom of its restraint.


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